FEFFER: Notes from Wall Street occupation zone

Bringing back the ‘60s commune to fight for something or other

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This week in Lower Manhattan, organized labor joined forces with disorganized hippies. On Wednesday, labor unions marched in solidarity with the “Occupy Wall Street” movement, saving a protest that was slowly descending into self-parody. Before labor joined the effort, the curiosity factor was starting to fade on the protest movement, now in its third week. The protest base camp in lower Manhattan’s Zuccotti Park hadbecome part of the scenery. Activities inside the park were peaceful and growing commonplace. Small groups of police officers stood on the Broadway and Liberty Street sidewalks bordering the park observing the goings-on. But while the rest of the people in the financial district were intent on going about their business, the protesters remain determined to get attention. During the Monday-morning rush hour, commuters taking a shortcut through the park were subjected to a gauntlet of protesters chanting, drumming and holding signs for their various causes. But most of the passers-by ignored the distractions as they hurried to their nearby offices. After all, they have jobs.

There may be as many causes represented at Occupy Wall Street as there are people in the encampment. Some came to show support for specific goals, others to offer general support, and more than a few are there just for the experience.

“I’m down here because we’re creating a space, as an alternative to oppressive society,” said Hampshire College student Jack Laxson, who traveled from his school in Massachusetts to Zuccotti Park on the first day of the “occupation.” He sleeps in the park and was detained in the mass arrests on the Brooklyn Bridge on Saturday. The Kansas native doesn’t have a specific grievance, at least none he cared to articulate. “I don’t have goals besides this creative open space that’s reuniting a lot of people who’ve been fractionally divided by the oppressive class,” he said.

The space they’ve created is part homeless camp and part middle-class college student’s concept of a vintage hippie commune. The middle of the 33,000-square-foot park is strewn with backpacks, bags and boxes of supplies, mostly covered by bright blue plastic sheeting. At night, some sleeping protesters use the sheeting as blankets. The food distribution and sign-making stations are nearby. The outlandish spectacles - involving strange costumes, provocative displays and occasional nudity - take place on the perimeter of the park, where they are more likely to generate attention and media coverage.

Although the general focus of the Occupy Wall Street protesters is anger at the financial system, many unrelated causes are represented, such as the anti-war group Code Pink and a young woman who spent part of Sunday evening running around the perimeter of the park with a “free hugs” sign embracing any willing stranger. Sections of the surrounding sidewalks are covered with handmade signs, condemning Wall Street and the wealthy, demanding an end to the Federal Reserve system, expressing consternation about the Bilderbergers and alerting people to the dangers of fluoride, among other concerns. Some of the more incendiary signs on display last week disappeared around the same time that more media, including national press, began to descend upon Zuccotti Park. Near the Broadway edge of the park, someone hung from a railing a U.S. flag, with the stars replaced by corporate logos and “WAR” scrawled in red paint to look like blood.

Martin Blondet, a soft-spoken 18-year-old from the upscale Gramercy Park neighborhood in Manhattan, was drawn to the occupation by a Facebook invitation and his general interest in attending protests. “I’ve been going to demonstrations in New York City since I was 14, so I decided it was really interesting that somebody was planning to do something like this,” said the United Nations International School senior. “It’s very democratic, very spontaneous.” Mr. Blondet said he has attended the occupiers’ general assemblies and admires how “everyone had an equal say in it. I really love that kind of horizontal organization that they have.” He sees that same spirit of equality in the occupation: “When I saw how this became a kind of community in itself, I fell in love with it.” He commutes to the site daily, but heads back to the comforts of the East Side at night.

The camp has a makeshift “people’s library” of books in plastic bins. Handwritten signs ask protesters to “take some, bring some,” and it is unclear how many books have been exchanged. One would expect to see titles by the likes of Saul Alinsky, Noam Chomsky and Karl Marx, but instead protesters can learn “The Truth About Chuck Norris,” plumb the “Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood,” or relive the wacky 1970s with “Kimchee Days” or “Stoned-Cold Warriors.”

Actress and artist Cynthia De Moss was in the park Sunday night, holding an “end the fed” sign and trying to garner support for Rep. Ron Paul’s presidential campaign. “We personally hope that more people will wake up to Ron Paul,” the Brooklyn resident said. “Our goal is for everyone to come together, educate, bond together, learn from each other. It’s a broad coalition here, but our hope is that people will realize that Ron Paul is running and actually has the answers.” She went on to list the Patriot Act, the wars and the Federal Reserve as her reasons for joining the occupation, while acknowledging those are side issues for most of the people there.

Law student Michael Fiske came to the city Monday from Albany, N.Y. - wearing an anarcho-punk Circle-A logo tie and “Free Mumia” button with his dark suit and sneakers - because of his concern for protecting whistle-blowers in the workplace, and to support the overall happening. “We’re learning from Egypt, we’re learning from Tunisia,” the earnest 29-year-old father said. “We’re learning from Libya and Syria, and we’re using communication, social media to connect to each other, connect the dots, to come together for a real democratic movement here in this country.” He wasn’t sure where the movement was going but he predicted a prolonged takeover of Zuccotti Park. “I don’t think it’s going to happen today, tomorrow, next year. This is a long struggle. This is a struggle that goes back hundreds of years, and it’s a struggle that’s going to go on for years.”

Leslie Feffer is a writer living in Manhattan.

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